The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought

Totalitarianism: The Inversion of Politics
by Jerome Kohn, Director, Hannah Arendt Center, New School University


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Caption Below
Portion of photograph "Hannah Arendt, Manomet, Mass., 1950."
Courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Trust.

When Hannah Arendt published The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951, World War II had ended and Hitler was dead, but Stalin lived and ruled. Arendt wanted to give her readers a sense of the phenomenal reality of totalitarianism, of its appearance in the world as a terrifying and completely new form of government. In the first two parts of the book she excavated hidden elements in modern anti-Semitism and European imperialism that coalesced in totalitarian movements; in the third part she explored the organization of those movements, dissected the structure of Nazism and Stalinist Bolshevism in power, and scrutinized the "double claim" of those regimes "to total domination and global rule." Her focus, to be sure, is mainly on Nazism, not only because more information concerning it was available at the time, but also because Arendt was more familiar with Germany and hence with the origins of totalitarianism there than in Russia. She knew, of course, that those origins differed substantially in the two countries and later, in different writings, would undertake to right the imbalance in her earlier discussion (see "Project: Totalitarian Elements in Marxism").

The enormous complexity of The Origins of Totalitarianism arises from its interweaving of an understanding of the concept of totalitarianism with the description of its emergence and embodiment in Nazism and Stalinism. The scope of Arendt's conceptual objectives may be glimpsed in the plan she drew up for six lectures on the nature of totalitarianism delivered at the New School for Social Research in March and April of 1953 (see "The Great Tradition and the Nature of Totalitarianism"). The first lecture dealt with totalitarianism's "explosion" of our traditional "categories of thought and standards of judgment," thus at the outset stating the difficulty of understanding totalitarianism at all. In the second lecture she considered the different kinds of government as they were first formulated by Plato and then jumped many centuries to Montesquieu's crucial discovery of each kind of government's principle of action and the human experience in which that principle is embedded. In the third lecture she explicated three important distinctions: first, between governments of law and arbitrary power; secondly, between the traditional notion of humanly established laws and the new totalitarian concept of laws that govern the evolution of nature and direct the movement of history; and, thirdly, between "traditional sources of authority" that stabilize "legal institutions," thereby accommodating human action, and totalitarian laws of motion whose function is, on the contrary, to stabilize human beings so that the predetermined courses of nature and history can run freely through them. The fourth lecture addressed the totalitarian "transformation" of an ideological system of belief into a deductive principle of action. In the fifth lecture the basic experience of human loneliness in totalitarianism was contrasted with that of impotence in tyranny and differentiated from the experiences of isolation and solitude, which are essential to the activities of making and thinking but "marginal phenomena in political life." In the final lecture Arendt distinguished "the political reality of freedom" from both its "philosophical idea" and the "inherent 'materialism'" of Western political thought.


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The Hannah Arendt Papers Three Essays: The Role of Experience in Hannah Arendt's Political Thought